Guest Column - May/June 2003
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No More Space for Parks? Think Again.

Creating Open Space

By Nancy L. Kaszak

Hinkston Park in Waukegan, a north suburb of
Chicago, expanded when the park district acquired
new property and moved its maintenance facility,
opening up a major corner for recreational use.

In city and suburb, land development is occurring at breakneck pace. That vacant lot that seemed ideal for a playground? Gone. The old farm field that would have made a great ball field? Now filled with townhomes.

Park and recreation agencies may feel boxed in—that their opportunities to save parks and open space are slipping through their fingers. But being landlocked, without room to expand, does not mean being without options. You can create new parks, trails, greenways and open space on property that was once used for other purposes.

Plenty of communities are creatively finding ways to maximize the land they have for outdoor recreation. Northlake, a suburb of Chicago, is one example. The village has developed parks around its water tanks, created a park and community center on former church property, and made its parkways more attractive.

"Look for your hidden inventory," says Northlake's Mayor Jeff Sherwin. "When it comes to creating new parks, suburban communities may think that they are landlocked, but every neighborhood has its hidden jewels that can become open space for the benefit of the community."

The City of Northlake, Ill., carved a bike path out of
a public works yard along a local creek. The colorful
items in the mulched area are old, painted fire
hydrants that the city has removed from service
elsewhere in the city. "Fire Hydrant Forest" is just
another way the city creatively takes advantage
of—and recycles—resources available to it.

Coupled with taking a new look at land already on-hand, be sure to take full advantage of what may be less-obvious opportunities to acquire open space. Northlake is creating a bike path along a local creek using flood-mitigation funds to acquire houses and by negotiating with developers of industrial properties.

"Developers are always looking for zoning changes, permit fee waivers, tax breaks or other concessions," Sherwin says. "That's a perfect time to ask for donations of easements or property that can benefit the community and may not be attractive to the developer. In one case we got the developer to move its retention pond to a place where it was perfect to create a bike path around it. In another, the city received a donation of 26 acres of flood plain."

Northlake is not alone among older Chicago suburbs that are finding ways to expand their open space, even without large tracts of available open space. Last year, the Bolingbrook Park District seized an opportunity when a local church acquired a parcel of land in a neighborhood that had no parks within walking distance. It retained outside conservation and real estate professionals to negotiate with three adjacent landowners who could provide additional street frontage for the site. The park district and church are jointly developing a park there.

In landlocked Waukegan, another Chicago suburb, the park district is working with Johns Manville Corporation to turn an industrial brownfield green. After the company remediates the site of its former 115-acre administrative complex, Waukegan will create a major sports and recreation complex there. A former Cherry Electric Company property now houses the park district's maintenance facility, enabling Waukegan to free up a section of a local park that was previously the site of a maintenance building. Across from the new City Hall, a former American Legion Building is being replaced by Veteran's Memorial Plaza.

Also in Northlake, Hansen Park was developed
around a 3-million-gallon water reservoir.

"The key is to stay connected, so you can always be aware of what's going on in your community," says Waukegan Park District Executive Director Greg Petry. "I work closely with the department of planning and development, community leaders, and the private sector and try to think out of the box in looking for opportunities to expand our parks and open space."

Sometimes a private landowner has a parcel that he or she would like to see become park space. The property need not be vast to benefit a community. Even a sliver of land, if it is in a key location—providing a link in a bike path, for instance—can appreciably expand your recreational offerings.

There are several ways to take advantage of such opportunities. One is to purchase the land outright when it becomes available. A land donation is another possibility. Donating land can be attractive to landowners because it can make them eligible for a variety of tax benefits. An owner may choose to donate an entire parcel to a park district, for example, or may decide to donate a portion of it. If it is partial donation, you may be able to buy the remaining property.

A landowner can also donate a conservation easement, which is useful when he or she wants the property to become an open space amenity but wants to continue owning it. A conservation easement is a legal agreement between the landowner and a government agency or nonprofit conservation organization that permanently limits development of the land. Even if the owner sells the land or passes it to heirs, the easement remains effective. As with land donations, a donation of a conservation easement may qualify a landowner for a variety of tax incentives.

A new play lot, like this local park, is being
developed in Bolingbrook, Ill., thanks to a partnership
between the Bolingbrook Park District and a local
church and to some strategic land acquisition
by the park district.

Another option is for a local government to buy a conservation easement. In doing so, you essentially buy the development rights to a property to keep it open and free of future development.

With all of these approaches to land conservation, an intermediary can be quite helpful. Certain nonprofit organizations can serve as intermediaries. They can provide interim financing for land purchases, which is particularly valuable when a parcel becomes available but the local government does not have the funds to purchase it—before it is bought for another use. Intermediaries can also negotiate with landowners on behalf of local governments. For public agencies without staff members who have real estate expertise, this can be critical in completing a successful land acquisition. Lastly, some intermediaries can also accept conservation easements on behalf of a local government, again giving the local government more flexibility and options.

With a creative look at the land resources your community already has, by watching for opportunities to acquire land and by drawing on conservation professionals, you will find that you do indeed have more space for parks.

Nancy L. Kaszak is executive director of CorLands, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization that helps protect and acquire land for parks, trails and natural-area conservation in northeastern Illinois. She can be reached at 312-427-4256 ext. 238 or